Ten years, seven Fridays. This is one of them.
The first Subway Series had ended. Interleague baseball among neighbors, despite the affront it represented to all purist instincts, was riveting. The Mets won the first game on the wing of Dave Mlicki. The Mighty and Vaunted Yankees took the second. The third game should have been ruled a tie. David Cone had a perfect game going against us until the seventh, but Steve Bieser, a scrub’s scrub and a Bobby Valentine creation if ever one existed, got on, got to third and coaxed a balk out of Cone (formerly known as Coney) to tie it. The Mets — hanging with ‘em even with Luis Lopez filling in for the injured Shawn Gilbert filling in for the injured Manny Alexander filling in for the injured Rey Ordoñez at short — lost in the tenth, but the game and the series felt like a draw. We met the enemy and the enemy met us on equal terms. We were peers with the defending world champions.
Now what? It is true that that in the middle of the second game, I called my best friend Chuck from a pay phone at Penn Station and blurted out “I’ll trade every game for the rest of the season to win these three!” Like the foxhole-bound soldier who swears that if he gets out of this, he’ll become a priest, I didn’t mean it. I wanted to win some more games in 1997.
The Mets had already exceeded expectations by mid-June. Not only did they beat the Mighty and Vaunted Yankees one out of three in the Bronx (as lame as that sounds, that was considered in some circles impossible), they were five games above .500. They sat in fourth place, 6-1/2 games behind the Braves, but only four in back of the moneyed Marlins for the Wild Card. They had beaten Pedro Martinez twice, Curt Schilling once and showed every sign of being a team that would win more often than it lost. After six straight seasons of sub-mediocrity, that was a dream come true.
Having more wins than losses meant everything. It meant you weren’t a joke. It meant you could have expectations. There was a game in Cincinnati when the putrid Reds beat the Mets and I was disappointed. Not disappointed merely at losing but disappointed that we’d been beaten by an inferior team. I hadn’t had that feeling in an awful long time. My disappointment validated us.
I took the newfound pride of being not bad everywhere. At the end of May, Stephanie accompanied me to Waco on vital beverage business. As long as we were in the state (granted, it’s a big state), we swung by her cousin’s family in Arlington who were kind enough to take us to The Ballpark in their town to see the Rangers and Royals. The highlight for me was the out-of-town scoreboard which reported the Mets had shut out the Phillies. One set of eyes in Texas was surely upon it — mine. I saw the result and clapped a lot. Cousin Lisa’s husband Todd good-naturedly advised, “Hey, this might be your year.”
In Texas they got us. In New York, the battle for understanding would continue.
Though we had dueled the Mighty and Vaunted Yankees to an almost-stalemate, and though our records were only two games apart when the Subway Series rolled to a halt, expectations were the Mets would just go back to being the Mets of 1991-1996 now that their moment in the reflected sun was over. “The thing you’ve gotta watch for from the Mets, Dog,” overbearing Yankees fan/afternoon drive-time WFAN host Mike Francesa told his chronically illogical partner, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, “is a letdown.” He pedantically explained that the Mets had probably spent themselves by taking the same field as the Mighty and Vaunted Yankees — Mighty and Vaunted Yankee Stadium, no less. Don’t count on the Mets playing particularly well at Shea against the Pirates this weekend, let alone the Braves next week.
This was typical sportstalk in New York, particularly where my team was concerned. By not being the Mighty and Vaunted Yankees, the Mets could not be taken seriously. They’d played 66 games before the Subway Series. They’d won 36 of them. If John Franco hadn’t given up that game-losing single to Tino Martinez in the tenth inning on Wednesday, they’d have the same exact record as the Mighty and Vaunteds, who lagged further in the standings from Baltimore in their division than we did from Atlanta. Didn’t matter. The Mets had to keep proving themselves, keep proving they were for real.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T would not come easy. But it would come. I swore it would come.
Bring on the Pirates!
Bad idea. Almost. The Pirates, who were a contender themselves for once by dint of playing in what the ESPN wags were calling the National League Comedy Central, seemed to be rolling over. The Mets, behind Mark Clark, built a 6-1 lead after six. It was 6-3 in the ninth. Franco, yesterday’s losing pitcher, could protect a three-run lead against the laughable Pirates, couldn’t he?
He couldn’t. Somebody named Dale Sveum hit a three-run homer. Franco was booed as Franco invariably was. Were we really going to lose this and prove blowhards like Mike Francesa right?
No! Infielder Jason Hardtke, a regular on the Norfolk shuttle, came up in the ninth and drove in the winning run! Mets 7 Pirates 6.
That was Thursday night. Friday night I was going to the game with Joe, my frequent Mets companion. We worked together for five minutes in 1990 and one conversation that revealed our shared interest in the same baseball team made us friends for apparently life. Joe liked to call me to talk about everything — his elusive job hunts, his current soap actress crush, his latest British Invasion vinyl finds (he wore his hair as if he were awaiting a callback from the Kinks in 1965), his secret scorebook statistics. Joe was whom Howie Rose addressed when he said “that’s an E-5 for those of you scoring at home.” Joe was scoring at home, and he didn’t need any announcer to tell him that was an E-5. Besides, if he thought it was a hit, it would go in his scorebook that way.
“Tim Bogar is batting .383 for me,” was a standard nonsequitur.
“Yeah,” I’d counter, “but he’s batting .195 for the rest of us.”
Joe only scores some games on TV (if he decides he wants a particular starting pitcher to accumulate at-bats, he’ll score only that pitcher’s starts, because Joe’s obsessed with pitchers’ hitting stats) but he scores every game he goes to at Shea. That gives him something to do while I watch the game and make what I perceive to be witty, insightful comments to, ultimately, myself.
On this Friday night, there wasn’t a whole lot of nuance to Joe’s scoring and I didn’t have much opportunity to be glib. Mets baseball in 1997 was serious business. It was scoreless until the bottom of the sixth when last night’s hero, Hardtke, drove in Butch Huskey.
Bobby Jones did the rest. Bobby Jones had been doing the rest all season long. A soft-tossing No. 3 type starter since coming up in 1993, Jones was blossoming. He was 11-3 entering the night. When we were in Texas, driving between Waco and Arlington, Stephanie asked that we stop at an outlet mall she spied from the highway. Strolling through, I saw one of the stores was called Jones New York. I lit up immediately.
Bobby Jones kept the Pirates at bay. He got out of a jam in the seventh. I got up to go to the men’s room during the stretch, and I was met by somebody who was lit up even more. The guy slapped me high-five after high-five, sputtering with joy, “Bobby JONES! Bobby JONES! Bobby JONES!”
The only one who didn’t completely believe in Bobby Jones was Bobby Valentine. He pulled his starter after 8-2/3. Here came Franco. But there didn’t go the lead. Mets 1 Pirates 0.
Saturday was another nailbiter. Mlicki, his invincibility evaporated since Monday night, gave up the go-ahead run in the eighth and trailed 2-1. In the bottom of the inning, Edgardo Alfonzo hit one out with a man on. Fonzie had been doing things like this lately. Clutch hitting. Great fielding. With Ordoñez (until he went on the DL at the beginning of June), he formed The Great Wall of Flushing. With runners on first and second, their specialty was the 6-5 forceout. It seems simple enough, but it was rare, and in their hands, beautiful. Now Fonzie put us up. Greg McMichael (how often could you call on Franco?) got the save. We won again. Mets 3 Pirates 2.
It was back to Shea on Sunday. My accompaniment this time was provided by Chuck, the guy I called on Tuesday night when I was ready to sacrifice the rest of the season for the sake of defeating David Wells. Hot day in Queens, which made Chuck happy since he likes baseball, but loves sunshine even more. It must not have made the pitchers happy because balls were flying out of the notorious pitchers’ park.
Our starter was Cory Lidle, a reliever. With Armando Reynoso having been taken out on a line drive to the body against the Yankees, the rotation was coming apart. Bobby V figured he’d get by with Lidle for as long as he could.
That lasted four innings. The Mets took a 3-0 lead until Lidle gave it back. Behind 4-3, Lance Johnson homered and evened things up. Juan Acevedo came in and let the Pirates retake the lead. In the bottom of the sixth, after a brief rain delay (it was hot enough for a sudden thunderstorm), the Mets scored four runs to make it 9-6 for the home side.
This was fun. Finally, we could relax. Chuck and I figured we were home free. Except Ricardo Jordan gave up one in the seventh and Franco — Franco! — two more in the ninth and once again we were tied. The Bucs wouldn’t go away.
Takashi Kashiwada, the first Japanese professional to play for the Mets, held Pittsburgh scoreless in the tenth and then Carl Everett, having the game of his life, slammed a three-run shot, his fourth hit, to end it. Mets 12 Pirates 9.
We swept a four-game series. Fans waved brooms. People thought enough to bring brooms from home on the 50-50 chance that they’d be able to brandish them. I thought that was cute if ill-advised, tempting-fatewise. Chuck who likes baseball but seems baffled by fans’ reactions to it, labeled it “queer”.
Sunday afternoon was awesome, but it left open the question of Monday night. The Mets had the Braves coming in, the first time the two had played anything like a mutually meaningful game since the first National League Championship Series in 1969. It probably wasn’t all that meaningful to the Braves, who owned a lifetime pass to the playoffs, but it meant something to us. We were actually known, with a touch of exaggeration among the faithful, as a team that played the Braves tough. But the Braves never had anything to play for until October. The Mets never did.
They did now but had no bullpen. Everybody threw Sunday. Monday’s starter was Rick Reed, the former replacement player. That was his name as far as the broadcasters were concerned. It was sometimes pronounced former replacement player Rick Reed. In the best tradition of Steve Bieser, Bobby Valentine rescued Reed from minor league oblivion. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say Reed rescued himself and Bobby noticed. Either way, Reed was the surprise pitcher on baseball’s surprise team.
We couldn’t have been more surprised by what he did Monday night. We had no ’pen; not even game-blowing, union loyalist Franco was readily available. We were going up against John Smoltz, who had a 2-0 lead with which to work. But we scratched out a run in the fifth and yesterday’s main man, Everett, stroked a two-run homer in the sixth. Reed hung on and hung in, pitching that rarity known as a complete game win. Mets 3 Braves 2.
On Tuesday night, I had to get my car. I dropped it off at my mechanics in Baldwin that morning. I had an oil-and-filter change and palpitations. Walking to their Mobil station from the LIRR station, I listened on our flagship station to a back-and-forth contest that the Mets tied at three in the bottom of the sixth about the time I was driving home to East Rockaway. Once inside the house, I watched the Braves take the lead back, 5-3, the way they tended to when it mattered. Damn.
Damn became HOT DAMN! Carlos Baerga stepped up in the bottom of the eighth with one on and hit one out against Mike Bielecki. Shea exploded. East Rockaway exploded. My phone blew up. It was Joel, my friend since junior high, calling from Phoenix. He was watching on TBS. He couldn’t believe it either. The Mets’ transition from pretender to contender was news from one coast to almost the other.
It was still tied in the bottom of the ninth when Baerga came up again. Carlos Baerga was a good idea in 1996. Seemed like a good idea. He was considered on the level of the Orioles’ Roberto Alomar among American League second basemen, a key cog in the powerful Cleveland Indian machine. While we weren’t paying attention, Baerga’s stock fell dramatically. The Tribe couldn’t wait to unload him and we were happy to scoop him up for the scant price of middling infielders Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent. We thought this was Keith Hernandez all over again, an all-star dumped in his prime.
Carlos Baerga was not Keith Hernandez. He wasn’t even Keith Miller. Nor much of an idea when all was said and done. He was injured, not in shape and mostly ineffective. He was getting the ol’ George Foster treatment from the fans. Until tonight. That homer in the eighth was huge. And now, with Mark Wohlers, the Braves’ struggling closer on the mound, he had a chance to be, if for a moment, the Carlos Baerga we imagined.
Baerga singled in Todd Hundley with the winning run. Mets 6 Braves 5.
Pandemonium everywhere. Long Island. Arizona. Flushing. My buddy Jason was at the game. He told me via e-mail the next day that he stood on his seat for the winning hit, high-fiving the stranger standing on the seat next to his. He didn’t tell me if his stranger shouted “Carlos BAERGA!” et al in his face.
That made it six in a row. On June 24, the Mets stood eleven games over .500, 1-1/2 behind the Marlins for the Wild Card, just four out of first. Nobody was talking about letdowns. Instead we bought into a playoff race as a certainty and a division title as a you-never-know possibility. And in case nobody else noticed, the Mets’ record at this point was a half-game better than the Mighty and Vaunted Yankees’.
Bring ‘em back!
Nobody who’d paid attention to the Mets this last week could reasonably question their viability. Nobody could look askance at the likes of me or any of us who had been taking the Mets so delightfully seriously after seasons of watching them lose, lose, lose. We weren’t nuts, at least not where this was concerned. If you couldn’t give the Mets respect, it was you who was nuts.
We had a good team. A real good team. Over the last six games, Carlos Baerga batted .333, Edgardo Alfonzo hit .409 and Carl Everett put up a cool .500. Guys named Hardtke, Lidle, Kashiwada, Jones and Reed came through. Squeakers, slugfests, fantastic finishes…for six straight games, the Mets won either by one run or during their last time up or in extra innings. Sometimes they won in various combinations of the aforementioned. They won them all.
A month after alighting in Texas, Stephanie and I finished June in Detroit: more vital beverage business that conveniently coincided with a visit to another ballpark we hadn’t yet seen, this time Tiger Stadium, this time to see the Mets in an Interleague matchup. The Mets and the Tigers? How strange, but there it was on the schedule and there we were, parking a rental car on Michigan Avenue and meeting in the lot two other Mets fans even giddier than me about the unexpected turn for the better 1997 had taken. One of them grabbed my right hand, shook it fiercely and declared, “The Mets aren’t going to lose another game all year!”
His assessment was a little off (Tigers 14 Mets 0 awaited us across the street), but the sentiment was right on. The Mets were for real. In every sense that mattered, this already was our year.
Next Friday: Second spitters and other countries.